Opany Atito is often at the forefront of our minds when we talk about people impacted by Mwanzo’s work. But Opany (pronounced without the ‘y’) is not a success story. His is a story of persistence in the face of devastating circumstances.
Not too long ago, he was a church minister and a hard-working farmer. He used to plant maize, beans, bananas, sorghum, and even keep a few cows. He had 6 children, 12 grandchildren, and was doing quite well by the standards of the community. He even volunteered his time as a nursery school teacher, where Mwanzo’s Director, Loyce, was once one of his students. Loyce laughs fondly when she thinks back, because even though Opany was able to make due as a teacher and a minister, she suspects that he’s been illiterate all along.
For Opany, as with Rabuor, those were the good years - now sorely missed. In 2006, AIDS began a cruel assault on his family. That year it took his oldest son and daughter-in-law, and in the years that followed, claimed four more of his children and each of their partners. Today only one of Opany’s children survives – Sisilia. She moved back to her family’s house last year after her husband died of AIDS. It is yet unknown if she carries the virus.
This steady drumbeat of losses has left 12 grandchildren and Sisilia to live with Opany and his wife in a small, simple family house. In recent years the crops have become unreliable and now go untended. Opany’s legs have swollen to the point of immobility – possibly from diabetes, and he relies on his grandchildren to gather firewood and water. Instead of managing her own property as most grandmothers in the village do, Opany’s wife must find work as a manual laborer on other people’s farms, and is the family’s only consistent source of income. Despite her efforts, she can hardly afford to feed so many mouths.
While many families in Rabuor have been wracked by AIDS, Opany’s story is an outlier for its sheer level of tragedy. Yet, we don’t share his story for tragic effect; we share it because Opany and his wife persisted through circumstances that would have beaten most of us, and managed to support their grandchildren to the best of their ability. Eight of their grandchildren are currently enrolled in the Mwanzo Educational Center, while four more have already graduated and are continuing their education. At MEC, the kids receive warm, nutritious meals twice a day, vaccinations and de-worming’s twice a year, and obtain one of the best basic educations available in the area. Crucially, Opany does not need to pay for his grandchildren to attend MEC. Times are tough for the family, but through education, they are working to ensure that the future is better.
When we visited Opany this past November, we brought a set of clothing for his grandchildren. Spirits were high as Loyce portioned out candy and they posed for pictures. We later noticed one of the same grandchildren leading his friends in a dance before of a large speaker at MEC’s graduation ceremony. Of course, our visit and graduation may have brought a high point in the children’s enthusiasm, but it’s something special to see a child who has lost so much, attending our school just like any other energetic and able student.
That is the difference that Mwanzo and our supporters are making.
As for Opany, his spirits were lifted by the gift of glasses. As he tried them on, he asked the children to retrieve his bible. At mid-day, sitting in a wooden chair outside of his house with his new glasses, he peeled open and carried on reading the tattered book – perhaps unaware that he was actually holding a dictionary.
Loyce couldn’t bring herself to tell him. He was thrilled.